U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler has rejected employer attempts to constrict the whistleblower protections of the federal and District of Columbia False Claims Acts. In a decision issued last week, she corrected a judgment from a jury verdict, and overruled the employer's attempts to vacate that verdict. The case is Kakeh v. United Planning Organization, Case No. 05-1271 (GK) in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Attorney Jason Zuckerman of The Employment Law Group writes today that, "Judge Kessler rejected several arguments by UPO that would undermine the statutory whistleblower protections under which Kakeh brought his claim, the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act (“WPA”) and the retaliation provisions of the False Claims Act (“FCA”) and the D.C. False Claims Act (“DCFCA”)." These include attempts to apply the "but for" standard of causation that the U.S. Supreme Court applied to age discrimination cases in Gross v. FBL Fin. Svcs., Inc., 129 S.Ct. 2343 (2009), and the "duty speech" exclusion adopted for First Amendment claims in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006). Judge Kessler also rejected a proposal to require "magic words" of "waste, fraud and abuse," and held that even disclosure of public information about false claims is still protected. Jason Zuckerman's post follows in the continuation of this blog entry, reposted here with his permission
Favorable decision in a False Claims Act retaliation case
by Jason Zuckerman - Sep 17, 2009
D.C. District Court Rejects Employer’s Attempt to Carve New Loopholes Into Whistleblower Protection Statutes
Affirming a jury’s finding that Mohammed Kakeh, a Controller for the United Planning Organization (“UPO”) was terminated for his refusal to engage in fraudulent billing and for providing information to the Office of Inspector General, Judge Kessler rejected several arguments by UPO that would undermine the statutory whistleblower protections under which Kakeh brought his claim, the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act (“WPA”) and the retaliation provisions of the False Claims Act (“FCA”) and the D.C. False Claims Act (“DCFCA”). The opinion is attached.
Gross Does Not Apply to FCA Retaliation Claims
UPO argued that the Supreme Court’s recent holding in Gross v. FBL Fin. Svcs., Inc., 129 S. Ct. 2343 (2009) requires courts to apply a “but for” causation standard to the retaliation provisions in the Federal and D.C. False Claims Acts. Judge Kessler held that Gross does not apply to FCA retaliation claims, distinguishing Gross in part on the ground that it is an ADEA case. The “because of” causation standard in the text of the FCA’s retaliation provision has been construed as a “motivating factor” causation standard, i.e., plaintiff can prevail by demonstrating that the adverse action was motivated, at least in part, by the employee having engaging in protected activity.
The “Duty Speech” Doctrine Does Not Apply to FCA Retaliation Claims
UPO argued that Kakeh’s disclosures were not protected because they were made pursuant to his “regular job duties.” Relying on U.S. ex rel. Yesudian v. Howard Univ., 153 F.3d 731, 736 (D.C. Cir. 1998), which sets forth a favorable standard of protected conduct under the FCA’s retaliation provision, Judge Kessler held that “an employee engages in protected activity when he discloses fraud and corruption, as opposed to making a ‘complaint about mere regulatory compliance’. . . Plaintiff repeatedly stated that he believed that Defendant’s billing practices were fraudulent and . . . . consistently framed these differences as matters of fraud and ethics, rather than routine disagreements about regulatory compliance. Therefore there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that Plaintiff was engaging in protected activity.”
Plaintiff Need Not Use “Magic Words” to Engage in Protected Conduct
Defendant argued that to be covered by the WPA, Plaintiff’s disclosures must use “the language or terminology of fraud, waste, or misuse.” Judge Kessler concluded: “As Plaintiff correctly states, however, Plaintiff was not obligated to use “magic words” to trigger the protections of the WPA. As the WPA indicates, a disclosure is protected if the employee “reasonably believes” that he is revealing a gross misuse of public funds or a violation of a law, rule, regulation, or contract term. D.C. Code 2-223.01(7).”
Disclosure of Public Information Can Constitute Protected Conduct
UPO asserted that plaintiff did not disclose to his supervisor any information that “was not already known as [sic] result of the prior year-end audit reports, Mr. Eboda’s preliminary report, the Head Start monitoring review and/or The Washington Post articles.” Judge Kessler held that “[e]ven if this information was already public and even if Jones already had knowledge of it, Plaintiff was the one responsible for disclosing it in the first instance.”